The American Kafir

2011/03/25

Update on Protests in the Middle East

Filed under: Bahrain, Jordon, National Security, Obama, Protests, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen — - @ 9:42 pm

Source Link: Stratfor

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SALAH MALKAWI/Getty Images Jordanian anti-government protesters clash with security forces March 25 in Amman

Syrian protests have spread and grown in size, increasing the regime’s vulnerability and creating an opportunity for Iran to rebuild its leverage in Damascus. Splits within the opposition have slowed any potential progress in Yemen’s negotiations over an exit for President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Jordan’s youth protest movement has declared its intent to form a tent city in a main square while the Islamist opposition continues to resist entering into negotiations with the regime and is holding out for greater concessions. The state of unrest in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain remains mostly unchanged from last Friday, but Gulf Cooperation Council forces are unlikely to leave Bahrain until both Riyadh and Manama feel the threat of Iranian destabilization has passed.

Syria

Tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied around the central al-Omari mosque in the southwestern city of Daraa on March 25, the scene of Syria’s largest and most violent protests to date since regional unrest spread to the country. Army and police had reportedly pulled back from the city center after Syrian President Bashar al Assad in a televised speech March 24 called on security forces to avoid using live ammunition, but gunfire was still reported in and around Daraa during Friday protests. Some 20 protesters were reportedly killed in the nearby town of Sanamein, according to Al Jazeera.

The protesters in Daraa, a Sunni stronghold in the country, are hardening their anti-regime stance, now chanting slogans against Maher al Assad, the president’s brother and head of the elite Republican Guard, whose forces have led the crackdown in the city. Protests spread northward as well on March 25, with demonstrations reported in the capital of Damascus, where three people were reportedly killed by security forces, the nearby town of Tel, the city of Homs, the coastal city of Latakia, the northeastern Kurdish city of Wamishli and the city of Hama, the site of the 1982 massacre against the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The protests in these areas were relatively small, however, numbering in the hundreds. But the Syrian security apparatus appears to be struggling in its efforts to intimidate protesters into keeping off the streets. The steadily growing protests in Daraa and the spread of demonstrations to other locations increase the potential for the Syrian MB to become more heavily involved in the uprising.

The ongoing demonstrations in Syria provide an opportunity for Iran to rebuild its leverage in Damascus through offering assistance in crushing the opposition. There are growing indications that Iran is deploying Hezbollah operatives to Syria from the Lebanese village of Dayr al Asaher to assist in the crackdowns.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime appears to be in search of distractions to its domestic crisis, pointing blame at Jordan and the United States for allegedly fueling the protests. A renewed Israeli military campaign in the Gaza Strip could also prove to be a useful distraction for the al Assad government as it resorts to more violent tactics against protesters at home. Damascus remains wary of the precedent set in Libya, where Western coalition forces have mounted a military campaign in the name of protecting protesters from an extraordinarily violent crackdown.

Yemen

A series of high-profile defections from the regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh earlier in the week effectively split the country’s army and tribal landscape in two. In spite of this, the situation in Yemen was far calmer than expected March 25 after Friday prayers. The streets remain packed as Saudi-mediated negotiations continue between the various opposition factions and the Saleh government, but the opposition said it had postponed a planned march to the presidential palace until April 1.

Saleh appears to have resigned himself to the fact that he will be making an early political departure, but he remains intent on making as dignified an exit as possible. He benefits in this regard from the multitude of splits within the opposition movement, which has thus far been unable to work out the details of a post-Saleh regime. Saleh is resisting the complete dismantling of his regime, trying to protect his 22 closest relatives who dominate the security, political and business apparatuses in the country. Hamid al-Ahmar, leader of the main opposition Islah party and the Hashid tribal confederation, is meanwhile trying to position himself to take over the next government. However, he faces considerable opposition from rival Baqil tribesmen as well as many in the south, who resent the al-Ahmar family for seizing their land during the Yemeni civil war. The southerners are meanwhile counting on Yaseen Saeed Noman, the former prime minister of now-defunct South Yemen, to counterbalance the northerners.

Concerns have also been raised that Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, commander of Yemen’s northwestern military division and 1st Armored Division who defected early in the week, is looking to assert military rule, though al-Ahmar so far claims that is not his intent. Negotiations are under way over a compromise that would reportedly lead to the resignations of Saleh and al-Ahmar as well as the creation of a transitional council representing Yemen’s various interest groups until elections can be held, but so far the talks have not led to any breakthroughs. Sorting out the details of such an arrangement through Yemen’s fractured political landscape will be an enormous challenge for Saudi mediators, especially with the Saleh family so deeply entrenched in the regime, tribal tensions simmering and the potential for more serious clashes between rival security forces looming.

Jordan

Though protests have been occurring regularly in Jordan since January, there has been a noticeable escalation of tensions in recent days between demonstrators and government supporters as well as security forces. The main reason for this is that youth protesters are trying to create a tent city of their own in downtown Amman, similar to what was seen in main squares in Cairo, Manama and Sanaa. A pro-democracy protest group originally known as the Jordanian Youth Movement has rechristened itself the “March 24 Youth” and declared March 24 that they would not leave Gamal Abdel Nasser Square, aka Interior Ministry Circle, until their demands are met. They have called for the immediate resignations of newly appointed Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit and General Intelligence Directorate head Lt. Gen. Muhammad al-Raqqad as well as the dissolution of parliament. Like the Al Wefaq movement in Bahrain, they are not pushing for the overthrow of the monarchy but do want significant political reforms that would weaken the power of King Abdullah II.

The Jordanian government responded with force to the attempted establishment of a permanent encampment in the square. It likely learned from the Egyptian, Bahraini and Yemeni examples that allowing a large tent city to materialize would eventually either lead to a violent episode that would only inflame the situation or would allow the protests to take on a life of their own. Roughly 400 government supporters, likely paid by Amman, attacked the 1,500-2,000 demonstrators in the square on both March 24 and March 25, throwing stones at them. Security forces allowed the clashes to go on for a while before using water cannons to disperse the groups on March 25, and authorities reportedly even clashed with the anti-government protesters themselves. According to reports, one person has been killed and more than 100 have been injured.

The role of the Islamist opposition in the Jordanian unrest remains unknown, and they do not appear to have been involved in the clashes of the past two days. Al-Bakhit accused them of responsibility for the clashes late March 25, adding that they had received help from elements living in Egypt and Syria. It is more likely, however, that the Jordanian MB’s political wing, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), is following the Egyptian MB’s example, allowing youth protest groups to take the lead in demonstrations while it moves toward negotiations on the sidelines with the regime. Thus far the IAF has resisted an invitation from the king to take part in the newly created National Dialogue Committee, however.

Jordan, like Bahrain, is a key regional ally of the United States, which is why U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates traveled to Amman on March 25 to meet with King Abdullah II. U.S. Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis was also in attendance, one day after the Bahraini crown prince held meetings of his own with the Jordanian monarch. There have been no reports as to what may have been discussed in either of these meetings, but Washington is likely trying to reassure Amman that it will stand by the regime, while simultaneously urging it to speed up the pace of reforms so as to stave off continued unrest. A reported shooting at the home of a Jordanian member of parliament March 25, which did not result in any injuries, has raised concerns that other elements are trying to dramatically escalate tensions in the country.

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain

Though Shiite demonstrators took to the streets in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province once again this Friday to call for prisoner releases and the withdrawal of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces from Bahrain, the demonstrations were again relatively small in comparison to what has been seen elsewhere in the region. Demonstrators numbering in the hundreds marched in at least two villages, Rabiae and Awamiya, near the city of Qatif, and there were no reported clashes between riot police and protesters. This does not mean, however, that security is not extremely tight throughout the kingdom at the moment, particularly in Shiite areas in the east, where Saudi human rights activists allege more than 100 demonstrators have been arrested over the past week in Safwa, Qatif and al-Ahsa.

Across the causeway in Bahrain, the situation has cooled considerably since the March 16 crackdown by GCC forces. But Riyadh is still concerned about the potential for protests to re-escalate in Bahrain. A state of emergency declared March 15 has prohibited public gatherings, but Friday prayers bring people out into the streets regardless. Moreover, some online activists had called for another “Day of Rage” in the country March 25, with plans for demonstrations in nine locations. Though security forces did use tear gas on one group of protesters and one person was reportedly killed, the Day of Rage largely fizzled. Tight security was one reason: Fighter jets and police helicopters patrolled the skies on Friday as security forces erected several checkpoints on major highways to search people’s cars. But a more significant factor was the lack of support for the demonstrations by the largest Shiite opposition group, Al Wefaq. Al Wefaq’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Isa Qassim, did perform the Friday prayers March 25 in the village of Diraz, reportedly drawing more than 1,000 people. But while he reiterated the people’s determination to continue demonstrating until their demands have been met, he again declined to escalate the situation by calling for the overthrow of the regime.

While the extent of Iranian involvement in the Bahraini protests remains unknown, the al-Khalifa regime has noticeably increased its rhetoric over the past week, alleging that Tehran is directing the demonstrations. This has occurred despite the situation’s having calmed significantly since the leaders of the hard-line Shiite Coalition for a Republic, which is believed to have close links with Tehran and has advocated the total overthrow of the regime, were detained March 17. Until the al-Khalifas, as well as the Saudis, feel that there is not a threat of Iranian destabilization, they will be unlikely to call for the withdrawal of the GCC troops that are helping to provide security in Bahrain.

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